Does Poop Serve Any Useful Purpose?

By Howard J. Bennett

This question may be a little hard on the stomach, but keep in mind that humans are the only members of the animal kingdom that get grossed out by poop. For everyone else, it’s just a part of life. Here are some of the ways that animals rely on poop to survive.

Elephants have a lot of undigested plant matter in their poop. Rather than go to waste (no pun intended) a mound of elephant poo is a veritable feast for insects like dung beetles. They roll it, eat it, and even lay their eggs in it.

Chickens peck at their own poop to get important vitamins that are produced by the bacteria that live in their intestinal tracts. I bet this makes the vitamin your mom gives you sound like a bargain!

Wild rabbits don’t get enough nutrition from the plant matter they ingest. To deal with this, they eat poop after its first trip through their intestines. By digesting poop a second time, the rabbit is able to get more nutrients from what it eats. (Cows solve this problem by having four stomachs and chewing their cud. This greatly increases the nutrient value of their grassy diet.)

Skipper caterpillars can shoot poop pellets five feet through the air! This is equivalent to an adult human throwing a small object 240 feet. Scientists think skipper caterpillars do this because wasps are attracted to the smell of their droppings. Hurling their turds send the buzzing bandits on a wild goose chase.

The mothers of certain deer, elk, and gazelles eat their young’s pee and poop so there are no smells around to attract hungry predators. These dedicated moms stop the behavior when their babies are about four weeks old and can run fast enough to protect themselves. (The next time your mom and dad complain about changing your little sister’s diaper, let them know what some parents do for their babies!)

Koalas would not be able to digest eucalyptus leaves if not for the bacteria living in their intestinal tract. This is so important that when baby koalas are six months old, they begin feeding on something called pap in addition to nursing. Pap is a special type of feces (poop) that a mother koala excretes for her baby. It contains protein and lots of bacteria that the joey will need once it starts eating eucalyptus leaves.

Despite the squeamishness of city-bred folks, some humans are more open-minded about poop. In the 19th century, pioneers burned dried buffalo poop so it could be used as a fuel. Some African tribes mix cow poop with straw to strengthen their huts. Animal manure is a terrific fertilizer because it contains nitrogen that plants need to grow.

So the next time your parents fork over $200 to the plumber who unclogs a blocked toilet, remember that he’s not the only creature who profits from poop!

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 3/23/09.)

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